Limerick family call for review of Aughinish investigation

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Taoiseach Micheal Martin

TAOISEACH Micheál Martin has been asked to address claims he blocked a review of a State investigation into concerns of a County Limerick farming family that waste from local industries was harming their health and contributing to deaths in their livestock.

Pat and Nuala Geoghegan from Glin claim they have evidence to show the investigation was flawed in its findings, and that efforts were made by parties to influence its outcome in order to protect hundreds of jobs in the region.

The €5.3 million investigation into health problems in Askeaton from 1995 to 1998 was co-ordinated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and also involved the Mid Western Health Board, the Department of Agriculture and Teagasc.

Pat Geoghegan has called for a full public inquiry and said the Taoiseach needs to address the matter publicly.

Mr Geoghegan received documents under the Freedom of Information legislation including a letter from the Mid Western Health Board (MWHB) which, he claims, shows that blood and tissue samples taken from the family that had been reported as lost due to human error, had in fact not been lost.

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Mr Geoghegan said he gave a copy of this letter to Michael Martin, who was the then Minister for Health, in 2001.

The letter, signed by a senior official at the Department of Public Health, and sent to a senior official at the MWHB states the author was informed in August 1998 that some of the results of testing on the Geoghegan’s samples “were available”, and, “that a certain number of the results sent to external agencies had been returned”.

The author goes on: “It is my recollection that (a named individual) told me that the results which had been returned to him were results from samples sent to the State Laboratory Service”.

The letter adds “the results from samples sent to certain London agencies had not yet been returned”.

Mr Martin ordered a review of the EPA investigation in 2003. However no review took place, and Mr Geoghegan said he wants the Mr Martin to explain in detail why the review did not happen “which to date he has declined to say”.

“I firmly believe that a review of the investigation would have significantly boosted our chances of a public inquiry,” said Mr Geoghegan.

Pat Geoghegan on his land with the Aughinish Alumina refinery in the background.

Meanwhile, the contents of an unpublished letter signed by a senior IDA figure on IDA  headed paper, which was sent to the Department of Agriculture on May 16, 1995, regarding publicity around the allegations of cattle dying in the Askeaton area in the 1990s, was raised in the Dáil by Solidarity/People Before Profit TD Paul Murphy on May 18.

The author of the letter, seen by this reporter, states they canvassed management at Aughinish Alumina and other local industries “to discuss the publicity surrounding the environmental issues in Askeaton, and to ascertain the likely cause of the problems”.

The author of the IDA letter to the Department of Agriculture stated  that Aughinish Alumina stated that the problems were not  caused by them.

The author states that it is speculated the health problems may be due to acid rain falling on farmland in the Askeaton area.

The letter warns that environmental campaigners have adopted the cause of the complainants in Askeaton farmers and “are threatening to attract major publicity and allocate blame (to the multinationals) regardless of evidence or proof”.

The author states that “it is very desirable that the issue be resolved quickly” and that Aughinish Alumina management are “absolutely convinced they are not responsible, but fears that if there is not a speedy conclusion it could have a negative effect on the attitude of the parent company to the plant, which could not be regarded as totally secure”.

Addressing the Taoiseach in the Dáil, Deputy Paul Murphy said the IDA letter along with corresponding notes of the meeting with Aughinish Alumina “clearly show that the IDA, with absolutely no environmental or health expertise, not only took Aughinish’s side but sought to influence the outcome of the health investigation”.

He said the author “refers to the importance of the jobs involved and restate the IDA had been assured by the company that there was nothing to see there”.

Deputy Murphy goes on: “I have a letter showing these notes were circulated to those conducting the investigation into the health problems, despite it containing no scientific or health information.”

He claimed this was “clearly an attempt to use economic arguments to influence the health investigation and to bias the whole thing” and he called on Mr Martin to support the call for a public inquiry.

Asked for a response, an IDA Ireland spokesperson said the company “has no comment to make”.

Several other TDs have pledged their support to the Geoghegan family in seeking a public inquiry into the entire investigation.

Mr Martin told the Dáil that the EPA carried out “significant work” in their investigation.

“I do not have the documents Deputy Paul Murphy says he has with regard to the Industrial Development Authority, IDA Ireland,” the Taoiseach said.

“These are issues that should be examined by independent agencies with expertise and competency in the field. That campaign has been going on for a long time. There have been a number of reports and reviews and these can be re-examined, but that is the position as it stands today,” added Mr Martin.

Independent TD Mattie McGrath told the Taoiseach that he “already knows about this saga because he met the Geoghegans when he was Minister for Health. He called for a review on April 1 2003 into the missing blood samples and then did a U-turn a month later and stopped that review”.

Deputy McGrath asked the Taoiseach if a review he had been in favour of previously was stopped at the behest of a senior official at the Department of Health whom he claimed was present when the Taoiseach met the Geoghegans.

Deputy McGrath told the Taoiseach “the Geoghegan family has evidence that it was”.

The Taoiseach replied that Deputy  McGrath was raising “an issue from 20 years ago and has given a perspective on it. I am not in a position here and now to confirm whether the official was the person who allegedly stopped that review”.

Mr Geoghegan has said the health official was present at a meeting he had with the Taoiseach on November 7, 2001 to discuss the missing blood samples.

Mr Geoghegan said he has since received notes of minutes taken at the meeting, which state the health official “has looked at the report and has concluded that the human health component of the study is sufficient, robust, and comprehensive to support the conclusion which are arrived at the findings”.

Mr Geoghegan said he has sought an explanation about a handwritten note allegedly signed by the same health official on November 6, the day prior to their meeting, and which Mr Geoghegan received under Freedom of Information, which reads: “1: Missing Blood Samples – adj debate – no public inquiry.”

Solidarity/People Before Profit TD Paul Murphy.

During a Dáil debate on March 9, Deputy Paul Murphy told the Taoiseach: “When the Taoiseach was the Minister for Health, he was on record as supporting an independent inquiry into the missing samples, yet he ended up doing a U-turn and blocked such an inquiry. To this day, the Taoiseach has not explained that U-turn.”

Deputy Murphy asked the Taoiseach to publish all records of any communications he and his advisors in the Department of Health, and any other parties, may have had about the EPA investigation and what Mr Geoghegan had told the Taoiseach in 2001.

Mr Martin replied that he recalled meeting Mr Geoghegan “in the period from 2000 to 2004”, and that it was his understanding that the EPA investigation could not find any link between health problems and Aughinish Alumina or any other local industry.

“I met Pat Geoghegan at the time in terms of the impact on both animal health and human health. I do not think it is fair to say an inquiry was blocked but, again, I do not have any recollection of meeting any individuals bar Mr Geoghegan himself and talking to officials in the Department about that,” the Taoiseach said.

The EPA investigation concluded that “all available data indicate that the levels of potential pollutants in the Askeaton area in the 1995-1998 period were below those likely to cause harm to the environment generally, to animals or to humans. Furthermore the available information suggest that this was also the position since the mid-1980s at least”.